On The Outside Looking In: Does the Atmosphere of Your Church Feel Inclusive to Newcomers?

Making the way clear for your first-time visitor.

by Deborah Ike

Grace Covenant Church. Project info here. Photo by Michael A. Muller

Grace Bible Church. Project info here. Photo by Brian Mihealsick

IMAGINE YOU’VE RECENTLY MOVED into a new town devoid of familiar faces. You’re a long way from your former church home. You do a quick Google search of churches in the area, check out a few websites, and decide which one to visit this Sunday. 

You find the church pretty easily and park your car. There’s no one in the parking lot who looks official, and when you find the main entrance, there’s not one friendly face that greets you. In fact, not one person has been looking out for you — a first-time guest. You follow the crowd and find your seat, but even if the sermon is doctrinally sound and engaging will you go back?

Let’s say you have never been to church (or haven’t since you were a child) and a life event causes you to visit one nearby. Parking lot attendants guide you into the parking lot. Signs lead the way to an entrance where you’re warmly greeted. In fact, when a greeter learns you’re new, they give you a quick tour and help you find a seat. People are friendly, the message is something you can apply to your daily life, but you’re not sure what to do next. Will you return?

These scenarios, and many variations of them, happen each week at our churches. New individuals or families attend a service to see if this particular church is one where they can feel at home … where they’ll fit in. When you invite someone into your home, whose responsibility is it that your guest feels welcome? I think we can agree that responsibility falls on the host, not the guest. That idea applies to our church homes as well. It’s not the guest who should own making sure he/she fits in, that’s our role as the host. So, how can we ensure our guests feel welcomed?

1: Select Volunteers Carefully

We’ve all been entrusted with different talents. When you’re looking for volunteers to serve in hospitality areas such as the parking lot, greeters, those stationed at the guest services booth, ushers, and more, you need to look for people who’re gifted at hospitality.

Look for people who make you feel at ease the moment you meet them. They’re warm, friendly, kind, and have a welcoming smile. These are people who can sense when someone is more reserved, so they tone down their usual boisterous greeting or know how to ask questions that don’t feel too intrusive. They’re more outgoing and know a lot of people at the church, so it’s easier for them to spot a newcomer.

These are the folks you want to invite into guest services roles. You’ll still need to train them on your church’s processes and equip them with information. However, volunteers with these qualities instinctively make people feel at home and will represent your congregation well.

As Dan Reiland, executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia, states in a post on hospitality, “The underpinnings of hospitality are love, generosity, and a genuine heart to serve.”

2: Train Volunteers and Equip Them With Information

Once you’ve found volunteers who’re gifted in hospitality, make sure they know the specifics of how you want them to interact with guests.

  • What do you expect volunteers to wear?
  • Do they need a name tag or badge?
  • Do you want them to point out where to locate kids check-in, the bookstore, and other rooms or do you want volunteers to walk a guest to those locations?
  • What time do you want volunteers to arrive?
  • Will you have a brief team meeting before moving to assigned locations each service?
  • What are the frequently asked questions from first-time guests and how do you want volunteers to answer those questions?
  • Will you provide copies of a church event calendar at the guest services / information booth for volunteers to reference?

When you equip volunteers with the information and guidance they need to successfully represent your church, everyone wins. Don’t make your volunteers guess at what you want; let them know upfront.

3: Establish a Guest Services or Information Booth If You Haven’t Already

In his post on ways churches drive away first time guests, Thom Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, states, “If your church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, you probably have lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well.”

Provide guest services volunteers with a church event calendar, maps of your church campus, along with information about small groups and various ministries of the church.

Create a FAQ page for your Guest Services team to help them answer questions consistently. If you have a brochure about the church that includes some background on the church history and church leadership, programs, small groups, and other details, make sure the booth is stocked with these at all times.

4: Welcome, But Don’t Embarrass Guests

Most churches make a few announcements before the pastor preaches the message. During this time, we usually welcome first-time guests. It’s one thing to mention you appreciate them visiting and let them know about a time after service to meet church staff or the pastor. If you have a visitor card for them to fill out and put in with the offering, that’s fine as well. Just don’t ask them to stand up, introduce themselves, or anything else to make them stand out.

5: Clearly Define the Path from Guest to Member

If you’ve attended your church for a year or longer, you’re an insider. You know all the acronyms, who is on staff, who leads which small group, and much more. Your guests don’t know any of that information and need you to explain things clearly without using insider language.

They’ll want to know how to become a member of your church. Does that require six weeks of classes or a one-time meeting? If they recently decided to follow Christ, how do they get baptized? If your church has small groups, how are those organized and how do new folks get involved?

Especially if someone is new to the faith, they don’t know much about church in general, much less your church’s culture. If you’re wracking your brain right now trying to think of what might be unfamiliar to a first-time guest, talk with 5-10 recent visitors (within the last 6 months) and ask about their first impressions. What did we say that didn’t initially make sense to you? What terms were unfamiliar? Did you feel like you fit in (and why)? Get the perspective of someone with fresh eyes on your church, and then make some adjustments as needed.

6: Realize Your Hospitality May Not Always Be Reciprocated

Everyone, believer or not, deals with rough patches in life. In those moments, your hospitality may or may not be reciprocated. You might offer a friendly “good morning” and get a frown in return. In those moments, remember you have no idea what that person is going through at the moment.

Prepare your volunteers for these moments and encourage them to pray for those who walk into church with a heavy burden or massive chip on their shoulder. Smile and offer hospitality regardless of the response you receive in return. You never know when your consistent display of acceptance and care will break through a hard heart and help someone be more receptive to the Gospel.

“Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.” – Romans 12:10-12

Deborah Ike is a writer, consultant, and project manager.  She provides tips and encouragement to those seeking to cultivate healthy churches at velocityministrymanagement.com.  You can connect with Deborah on Facebook and Twitter(@DeborahVMM). This article was originally written for Worship Facilities Magazine, and reposted here with permission.
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